The battle against the COVID-19 pandemic has taken most of the time, resources, and energy of the government, and much has been written about the exasperation of citizens with the seeming lack of cohesion and unified action of authorities to mitigate the effects of the health emergency. In a move that is seen more as a panic reaction rather than as part of a strategic plan, the government has deployed the military and police to the frontlines, literally, to carry out its major strategy to address the health crisis: for people to practice social or physical distancing.
Utilizing the security forces, especially the military, in an erstwhile civilian concern poses several issues that I have, time and again, argued in this column. Foremost of which is that it securitizes a problem, in this case a health issue, and utilizes military-style solutions to a civilian concern. Note that military-solutions are, most often, not appropriate to civilian issues since the training and doctrine of the military are very different from that of civilians. The military is trained to defend national sovereignty and hence, their ways are focused on “mission accomplishment” rather than “process compliance” which is, on the other hand, the focus of civilian units. (‘Process compliance’ is the major reason why the Civil Service Commission and Commission on Audit have instituted numerous requirements and procedures for government employees. I am not claiming that the military bypasses the government processes; my beef is the fact that in most cases, they have a different set of requirements precisely because their focus and mission are different.)
The second issue, and the heart of this article, is the fact that using the military to handle civilian problems divert its attention from what it is supposed to focus on, that is, addressing national security issues that threaten or undermine the authority of the democratically elected government. Terrorism currently tops this list.
Terrorism is not a new issue. But there is renewed interest in it due to the recent passage of the Anti-Terrorism Law (ATL). Many have criticized the law, alleging that some provisions violate the constitution. As of this writing, a number of petitions by human rights and civil society organizations (CSOs) have been submitted to the Supreme Court. In contrast to the posturing of CSOs, the military and police institutions favor the ATL’s passage. This is not surprising since these institutions have long been lobbying for a law that would either amend or replace the 2007 Human Security Act (HSA), the country’s supposed anti-terrorism law.
The current Philippine reality with regard the issue of terrorism can be summarized in five points: 1.) The Human Security Act (2007) is inoperable and inadequate (and was hardly used since its passage); 2.) There is no comprehensive national strategy and plan dealing with terrorist groups (very few were involved in the formulation of the 2019 National Action Plan, undermining its claim to be “comprehensive and national”); 3.) The policy directives of national government and local government units (LGUs) regarding terrorist groups are conflicting; 4.) the border control in the Sulu sea is extremely weak, making it an attractive back-door channel for foreign terrorists to enter the country; and, 5.) The nature of terrorist groups have evolved — they employ both armed/ military action as well as political-ideological work to “win the hearts and minds” of their target public.
In the absence of an effective legal platform, clear guidelines, and a comprehensive security plan, short-term programming of interventions are done and ad-hoc arrangements are adopted by LGUs to address the security problem. The military and police handle the armed/military actions of terror groups, but there’s no clarity on which civilian units are supposed to manage the political-ideological battle space. Security institutions, in a way, are forced to also fill in this gap. This situation makes a military solution normalized since civilian units have unclear directives and mandates vis-a-vis dealing with terrorist organizations.
This is the context on why an effective Anti-Terrorism Law is necessary. While I concede that there are provisions in the current ATL that are dangerous and can be abused, as highlighted by critics, it should be noted, however, that the ATL likewise provides the security institutions a stronger legal platform to address terror organizations. A few of these highlights include: a.) it expands the coverage of the penal provision to include acts of terrorism outside of the Philippine territory; b.) it strengthens the legal framework for international cooperation against terrorist groups; c.) it strengthens the Anti-Money Laundering Act relative to terrorist financing; d.) It provides clarity on who is ultimately in charge of terrorism problems (i.e., the Anti-Terrorism Council or ATC); and, e.) it adopts the “whole of government/whole of nation” approach as the national government’s framework versus terrorism, thereby giving a clearer mandate to government civilian agencies to be involved in addressing issues being used by terror groups to recruit.
However, a legal platform like the ATL is only one of the many interventions needed to address the problem. Coinciding with it should be an improvement of good governance practices in areas that remain to be recruitment hotspots; as well as an improvement in the border control and management especially in the Sulu Sea.
But the biggest challenge in the country’s fight against terrorism is the necessity and urgency to improve the capacity, professionalism, and credibility of our security and justice institutions. The strong opposition to the ATL stems not just from its questionable provisions, but also due to the credibility problem of the frontline agencies tasked to implement it. Until the public is assured that the security and justice institutions are committed to democratic governance and the rule of law, opposition to the ATL and similar interventions will continue to mount.
In the end, the dilemma remains — we need a strong legal platform to address the ways of terrorist groups and individuals, but we also need equally strong safeguard provisions to ensure that these legal measures will not be used against legitimate dissent and opposition to the government.
Jennifer Santiago Oreta is the Director of the Ateneo Initiative on South East Asian Studies, and an Assistant Professor of the Department of Political Science of the Ateneo de Manila University. She is also the Executive Director of the civil society organization Human Security Advocates.